I pulled out the latest issue of Green Futures for a bit of light relief. It instantly lifted my mood as it reminded me just… how exciting sustainability issues can be.
Scientists at McGill University, Montreal, have developed a way of making glass up to 200 times stronger, which could increase the longevity of smartphone screens.
The glass can be deformed by 5% before snapping, as opposed to regular glass which can only handle 0.1%. The solution is inspired by the way mollusc shells are put together. A material called nacre makes the otherwise brittle shells incredibly strong, as well as shiny. It’s made up of microscopic, interlocking blocks with curvy boundaries. This means that any energy from an impact is dispersed and absorbed to prevent shattering.
The Canadian researchers engraved the glass with curved microscopic cracks using a pulsed 3D laser in order to mimic the mollusc shell design. They claim it is relatively economical to produce, only requiring the laser and a precise hand, or machine, to guide it.
The same technique could potentially be applied to other brittle materials, the researchers believe, such as ceramics and polymers. However, one of the most promising possibilities is the glass’s application in handheld electronics: the average lifespan of a mobile phone is a mere 18 months, with many of them discarded due to cracked and broken screens.
Innovations like Gorilla Glass have introduced chemically strengthened touchscreens into the smartphone material eco-system. But the ‘mollusc’ glass proposed by the Canadian research team could be a more cost-effective alternative for manufacturers, although it is still in its commercial infancy.
Rodrigo Bautista, Senior Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future, says a “different business model, one which promotes a more circular approach to internal components and a continuation of software updates for older devices”, is what’s truly needed to address electronics waste. However, he adds that: “less breakable glass would make such a model more feasible by significantly raising the life expectancy of our electronic devices.” – Alex Fenton